Ever arrived really late to a movie and then spent a half-hour trying to figure out who the main characters are and what they're doing?
That's how I felt watching Akiva Goldsman's soppy, hilariously overstated romantic fantasy "Winter's Tale," only I didn't arrive late.
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"Winter's Tale"★ ˝
Starring: Colin Farrell, Russell Crowe, Jessica Brown Findlay, William Hurt, Eva Marie Saint, Jennifer Connelly, Will Smith
Directed by: Akiva Goldsman
Details: A Warner Bros. release. Rated PG-13 for sexual situations and violence. 129 minutes
"Winter's Tale" offers grand overtures of imagination and romance with woozy visual effects that overpower the characters and render its Dan Brownish plot comically incoherent.
This movie, based on Mark Helprin's novel, isn't big on explaining the rules of this universe of magical un-realism. We have to piece things together as the story unfolds.
A disembodied woman's voice intones an introduction: "We're all connected. Each born baby carries a miracle." This becomes important in the third act.
We also learn from the voice-over narration that "magic is everywhere around us." All we have to do is look.
What we actually see isn't so much magic as a convoluted, unconvincing fantasy romance spanning more than a century in the Big Apple, beginning in 1895.
An immigrant couple, rejected at Ellis Island, places a baby into a model boat called City of Justice and sets him afloat in the harbor.
By 1916, the baby grows up to be charming New York thief Peter Lake, a 21-year-old character inexplicably played by 37-year-old Colin Farrell.
(Now would be a good time to remember this movie's ad slogan: "It's not a true story, it's a love story.")
Peter is chased by a bunch of thugs uniformly attired in black long coats and derbies, led by the vicious Pearly Soames (a concrete-scene-chewing Russell Crowe), who subscribes to the Ernst Stavro Blofeld School of Dealing with Incompetent Subordinates.
Turns out that Pearly works as a demon for Satan himself (a woefully miscast Will Smith, phoning in a performance of vague evil and tired villainy).
Pearly wants to capture and kill Peter, a former protégé, and almost succeeds, but a magical white horse appears and sprouts wings just in time to whisk Peter out of harm.
(This, we discover, is not actually a horse, but really a dog, pretending to be a horse. Remember: it's not a true story, it's a love story.)
Meanwhile, over in Central Park, a 21-year-old woman named Beverly Penn ("Downton Abbey" cast member Jessica Brown Findlay) goes about her daily routine knowing that she will soon die of consumption.
Left alone one night, she meets Peter when he breaks into the house to steal stuff. She finds him utterly charming. He becomes as smitten as a kitten.
Peter and Beverly are supposed to be instant soul mates, but their over-rehearsed exchanges and complete absence of passionate interplay make them seem as frosty as the frigid New York winter raging outside.
The gross dramatic miscalculations in "Winter's Tale" are surprising, considering it's the directorial debut of Goldsman, who won an Academy Award for his screenplay to Ron Howard's fact-based drama "A Beautiful Mind."
Here, Goldsman seems to direct the story instead of the actors, stuck reciting lines with little resonance or urgency, as if stuck in an alternate non-real reality.
Still, "Winter's Tale" has no shortage of big ideas and raw, artistic ambition.
It wants to reaffirm that we're not adrift in a vast and chaotic universe, that everything has meaning, humans have purpose and nothing occurs by sheer coincidence.
This becomes obvious, yet still elusively confusing, when Peter pops up in 2014 New York to befriend a mother (Jennifer Connelly) with a young daughter suffering with cancer, and to be reunited with someone he remembers from 1916.
She's now the editor-in-chief of a New York newspaper, and even though Eva Marie Saint appears elderly, she hardly looks 107 years old, as the movie's timeline requires her to be. (Apparently, newspaper employees can't afford to ever retire.)
Just remember: It's not a true story. Just a failed fantasy with lofty, never-realized ambitions.